Barbed Wireless

Why high-speed Net access won’t be free.

The Philadelphia city government recently announced that it will launch a citywide wireless network by the spring of 2006. The plan is to mount up to 16 Wi-Fi routers per square mile on streetlights in order to provide “some level of free wireless Internet access to everyone living, working or visiting the city.” Boston and Madison, Wis. are also considering citywide Wi-Fi that’s free, or at least cheaper than DSL. You might think this means that wireless will be free everywhere in a few years. You’d be wrong.

Bathing a city in wireless isn’t easy. Wi-Fi, which was designed for use in small home and office networks, is only one approach to routing the Net over a wireless signal. With an operating range of at best 300 feet, Wi-Fi wasn’t designed for large-scale deployment. That’s why you have to install one or more routers on every block to provide universal coverage. Even then, the signal will still be spotty indoors—the range is more like 30 feet if there’s a wall in the way—and the whole thing will be a nightmare to implement in rural areas.

But right when Philly’s network is scheduled for completion, there will be a successor to Wi-Fi that is designed to provide large-scale coverage. This new technology, dubbed WiMAX, will be standard in Intel’s laptop chip sets starting in 2006 and will dwarf the power of Wi-Fi gear. Wi-Fi base stations transmit at about two-tenths of a watt; WiMax runs at as much as 30 watts, powering through walls with a maximum range of 30 miles. Moreover, Wi-Fi signals not only compete with each other, but with cordless phones and microwave ovens that broadcast on similar wavelengths; WiMAX travels on radio frequencies that are much less congested. A single WiMAX tower—a huge, multi-thousand-dollar contraption that resembles a cell phone tower more than an Apple AirPort—will serve thousands of customers at once.

That’ll give us free Internet access everywhere, right? Nope. WiMAX won’t be free for the same reason cell phone service isn’t free. The high-powered, long-range WiMAX signal is reserved for big wireless carriers like Nextel, Sprint, and BellSouth that have bought exclusive FCC licenses. These mega-corporations paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to certain radio frequencies. They’ll be looking to make that money back and then some.

Local groups and philanthropists looking to serve up free access will be able to set up a version of WiMAX that, like Wi-Fi, doesn’t require a license. The tech specs for this everyman version aren’t as impressive, though. The legal transmitting power will be lower—only four watts instead of 30—and the equipment will transmit at a frequency that doesn’t travel well through buildings and trees. That means unlicensed WiMAX networks won’t be able to serve more than a city block or two. And since no one can claim ownership of those frequencies, neighboring networks will interfere with each other.

Corporate providers and free-network supporters may talk about “complementary technologies” and “interoperability,” but the truth is that there will soon be two options for wireless—spotty coverage that’s free or a strong signal that could cost as much as your cell phone plan. You can argue that the future of wireless is as much an ideological battle as a technological one. But if corporations have better technology, any debate over whether wireless should be a private profit center or a public resource will be moot.

Wannabe wireless philanthropists, like the city of Philadelphia, will lose technologically because they’re using transmitters that can’t reach beyond their own backyards. For do-gooder types, the Johnny Appleseed model—planting antennas in one building, park, or low-income neighborhood at a time—has an intrinsic appeal. But while a call to install transmitters in every block of every city makes for a great speech, it’s just not that practical.

If they want to provide citizens with free or cheap wireless, city governments must realize that WiMAX isn’t just an evil corporate tool. Unlike cell phone service, it’s designed so enthusiasts can stretch the network locally, much further than they can with today’s Wi-Fi hardware. While no homebrew project can compete with a corporate megatower and a license to the local airwaves, it’s also true that the best way to broadcast a tower’s signal into each nook and cranny in town is to set up local routers. That is, to stash low-powered WiMAX or Wi-Fi repeaters in buildings and parks. Instead of trying to make wireless a new utility, city hall should focus on wresting deals from the big telecom companies that allow local volunteers to bring WiMAX to underserved areas. Even if we don’t get the Internet for free, at least the antenna-toting Johnny Appleseeds will be doing something useful.

Webhead thanks Ron Resnick of the WiMAX Forum.